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Every good writer is a reader, usually a prolific reader. It’s not a mere coincidence. Every word we absorb works into our subconscious; it helps us develop our own style. But you don’t have to rely on your subconscious to benefit from being a good reader.
If you don’t believe me, believe one of the most successful modern writers:
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
– Stephen King
Reading gives you a lot more than entertainment and escape. It’s a very inexpensive and enjoyable way to learn to become a better writer.
Don’t limit yourself to the great literature, though you should read some of that too. Be an eclectic reader. Read fiction in a variety of genres, read non-fiction too. You will learn what genres have more in common with each other. You will learn how they make use of writing styles and points-of-views. You will learn how they set the tone; how a light-hearted crime novel differs from a gritty crime novel.
Even if you only ever intend to write in one genre, read different things. Your writing will be richer for it.
Ruin Your Books
Read with a pen in hand, or use the highlighter and notes functions on your kindle. Underline passages; make notes when something – a word, a line or a phrase – makes a particularly strong impression on you. It could be anything. A fresh way the author expressed something, attention to detail, something that irritated you. The strong impression doesn’t have to be only positive. Learn from things that annoy you, so that you don’t repeat them in your writing.
If you find yourself skipping over sections in a book, stop, and think about why you are doing it. Is it just repeat information, a boring character, superfluous words? Analyse it. Scribble as you read.
Learn from the Best
On top of the first two steps, focus on a group of authors who are the best in the genre you want to write. Read contemporary work, but also look at their older works – books that have become classics in your genre. They will teach you why their popularity has lasted for years, or even decades.
Read your favourite authors’ complete works in chronological order, and you will be able to see how they improved as a writer. For example, there is a huge difference in the calibre of writing in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. While J. K. Rowling’s imagination and the characters gripped the world from the first book, she improved considerably as a writer by the time the final book was published.
Read Out Loud
In the olden days, it was normal to read out loud. Amongst the more literary families, it would be something people did in the evenings. You don’t need to involve your family, though that could be fun, but you can read out loud to yourself.
This remains one of the most understated yet beneficial habits. Stories are meant to be told. When we read, we hear the story in our head. We can hear the characters, maybe we can even visualise the scene. But we hear the words. When you read out loud, this hearing gets better. You can hear the cadence and the tone of the words. You can feel how sentences flow, and the emotions they convey. Read as if you are an actor reading the lines. Feel the emotions. Really make the words your own.
Then compare it by reading out loud your work. Can you feel the emotions? Can you feel the power in the flow of sentence? Listen for the ingredients that make it a powerful passage, and if it’s not there, then go back to it, and rework.
Practice makes perfect is a cliché because it’s true. Reading as a writer may be difficult in the beginning, but the more you practice, the better you will get, and you will also begin to notice improvements in your writing, as well find more depth in the words you read.
Do you read like a writer? Share your opinion in the comments below.
Dolly G is a founder of Kaizen Reading where she writes essays, pursues a crazy reading challenge, and talks about how books fulfil individual potential.